By Greg Bennett, utahvalley360.com
In the early 1980s, Alpine Elementary teacher Paul Thompson recognized a need for Utah-specific social studies information in his classroom.
He wanted up-to-date information that would allow his students to learn about current events affecting their lives, government leaders in office at that time and an up-to-date perspective on traditional Utah history.
After a survey of his peers showed that many other fourth-grade teachers would love a similar resource in their classrooms, Thompson began publishing Utah Studies Weekly in his basement, often working 80-hour weeks.
“Utahns have a unique history that we’re proud of,” Thompson says. “We were able to cover things in the Utah Studies Weekly that were important to our students at that specific time.”
The Utah Studies Weekly – and the subsequent 36 state-specific Studies Weekly publications – offer information, activities and illustrations that students relate to and teachers can use in a weekly newspaper that comes complete with a supplemental package for teachers.
Although Thompson endured many of the long nights that other entrepreneurs do when starting a project, cash flow wasn’t a problem.
“I got a good return from the first survey of Utah teachers and the subscription money came in before the product was due, so it always paid for itself,” he says. “I never had to go into debt. I just had to deliver what I promised to those subscribers.”
Since those first subscribers in 1985, the Studies Weekly company has grown to employ 60 people and produce 64 different publications, most of which are produced weekly in the company’s Lindon offices. The publications range from the state-specific social studies newspapers to national technology education brochures and a national USA Studies Weekly publication.
But the growth hasn’t come overnight. In fact, the Utah Studies Weekly was the only publication Thompson produced until 1998, when he was still doing most of the writing, illustrating, marketing and production for the publication.
At the end of the 1990s, however, Thompson’s sister – who lived in Texas at the time – started Texas Studies Weekly under the direction of, but independent to, Thompson. It enjoyed almost immediate and unprecedented success.
“After we saw how successful Aunt Bev was with the Texas publication, we all decided it was something we wanted to get involved with,” says Ed Rickers, Thompson’s son-in-law and the current president of Studies Weekly.
Thompson divided the country into geographic locations and different relatives were in charge of different areas. Each worked independently from each other and paid licensing fees to Thompson. He also served as a consultant and supervisor, writing a style guide for all to follow.
Rickers and Thompson’s oldest son, Tyler, were the most aggressive. Eventually Tyler Thompson and Rickers signed a joint operating agreement, moving their part of the business out of the basement and into a warehouse office. Eventually the other individual owners – made up of family members who had been given responsibility for different geographic areas – joined together to form one company with Rickers as the president and CEO.
Tyler Thompson remains heavily involved in the company as well, serving as board member and vice president.
“It made sense because we were able to pool together resources and contacts,” Rickers says. “Under the previous arrangement we would find that many of us were spending time working out things someone else already knew a solution to.”
One problem the Studies Weekly team had to solve was packing and shipping 700,000 copies throughout the country each week.
Enter the Alpine Transition and Employment Center (ATEC). Part of the Alpine School District, ATEC assists mentally challenged young adults by supplying employment opportunities, supervision and transportation.
Supervised by Debbie Ostler, 20-30 ATEC employees sort, label and prepare millions of newspapers for shipment.
“They are tremendous workers and Debbie works so well with them,” Rickers says. “We have tried hiring our own people for shipping, but they were not nearly as reliable, pleasant or dedicated.”
The work experience provides the ATEC workers with added confidence and independence.
One challenge that doesn’t have a local solution is the competition for limited educational funds throughout the country. Because of this, Rickers believes that it’s important for states to adopt the Studies Weekly newspapers as approved parts of the state’s curriculum. This opens state funding up to local schools to purchase the study program.
As for Paul Thompson, he believes the work he has done is about more than making money. He believes it is part of his larger calling of educator.
“The money is nice, of course, but I really believe we’re filling a need that teachers have around the country,” he says. “We’re able to include information that isn’t in a textbook, unless the textbook is brand new. We update information and supply them with materials that make it convenient to use.”
The company is considering including additional supplements with each newspaper that will provide “take-home” activities for the students. This would also assist the company in generating additional revenue through advertising.
“We go to 700,000 students throughout the country,” Rickers says. “We figured there must be some people that would love to have that marketing reach.”
Although those decisions are being worked out, Ricker and Paul Thompson are encouraged by the outlook.
For now, elementary students across the country are benefiting from one elementary teacher from Alpine Elementary and an idea he had 18 years ago.
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At a Glance
Position: Founder, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Studies Weekly
Former Occupation: Elementary teacher, administrator, Alpine School District
Family: Wife (Barbara) two sons (Tyler and Travis), three daughters (Celeste, Miriam, Laurel), 12 grandchildren
Number of titles: 64
Numbers of subscribers nationally: 700,000
Number of employees: 60